A fierce and warlike song, boys and girls, to raise in honor of so young a lad. But those were fierce and warlike days when men were stirred by the recital of bold and daring deeds--those old, old days, eight hundred years ago, when Olaf, the boy viking, the pirate chief of a hundred mail-clad men, stood upon the uplifted shields of his exultant fighting-men in the grim and smoke-stained hall of the gray castle of captured Sigtun, oldest of Swedish cities.
Take your atlas and, turning to the map of Sweden, place your finger on the city of Stockholm. Do you notice that it lies at the easterly end of a large lake? That is the Maelar, beautiful with winding channels, pine-covered islands, and rocky shores. It is peaceful and quiet now, and palace and villa and quaint Northern farmhouse stand unmolested on its picturesque borders. But channels, and islands, and rocky shores have echoed and re-echoed with the war-shouts of many a fierce sea-rover since those far-off days when Olaf, the boy viking, and his Norwegian ships of war ploughed through the narrow sea-strait and ravaged the fair shores of the Maelar with fire and sword.
Stockholm, the "Venice of the North," as it is called, was not then in existence; and little now remains of old Sigtun save ruined walls.
But travellers may still see the three tall towers of the ancient town, and the great stone-heap, alongside which young Olaf drew his ships of war, and over which his pirate crew swarmed into Sigtun town, and planted the victorious banner of the golden serpent upon the conquered walls.
For this fair young Olaf came of hardy Norse stock. His father, Harald Graenske, or "Gray-mantle," one of the tributary kings of Norway, had fallen a victim to the tortures of the haughty Swedish queen; and now his son, a boy of scarce thirteen, but a warrior already by training and from desire, came to avenge his father's death. His mother, the Queen Aasta, equipped a large dragon-ship or war-vessel for her adventurous son, and with the lad, as helmsman and guardian, was sent old Rane, whom men called "the far-travelled,"
because he had sailed westward as far as England and southward to Norvasund (by which name men then knew the Straits of Gibraltar).
Boys toughened quickly in those stirring days, and this lad, who, because he was commander of a dragon-ship, was called Olaf the King--though he had no land to rule--was of viking blood, and quickly learned the trade of war. Already, among the rocks and sands of Sodermann, upon the Swedish coast, he had won his first battle over a superior force of Danish war-vessels.
Other ships of war joined him; the name of Olaf the Brave was given him by right of daring deeds, and "Skoal to the Viking!" rang from the sturdy throats of his followers as the little sea-king of thirteen was lifted in triumph upon the battle-dented shields.
But a swift runner bursts into the gray hall of Sigtun. "To your ships, O king; to your ships!" he cries. "Olaf, the Swedish king, men say, is planting a forest of spears along the sea-strait, and, except ye push out now, ye may not get out at all!"
The nimble young chief sprang from the upraised shields.
"To your ships, vikings, all!" he shouted. "Show your teeth, war-wolves!
Up with the serpent banner, and death to Olaf the Swede!"
Straight across the lake to the sea-strait, near where Stockholm now stands, the vikings sailed, young Olaf's dragon-ship taking the lead. But all too late; for, across the narrow strait, the Swedish king had stretched great chains, and had filled up the channel with stocks and stones. Olaf and his Norsemen were fairly trapped; the Swedish spears waved in wild and joyful triumph, and King Olaf, the Swede, said with grim satisfaction to his lords: "See, jarls and lendermen, the Fat Boy is caged at last!" For he never spoke of his stout young Norwegian namesake and rival save as "Olaf Tjocke"--Olaf the Thick, or Fat.
The boy viking stood by his dragon-headed prow, and shook his clenched fist at the obstructed sea-strait and the Swedish spears.
"Shall we, then, land, Rane, and fight our way through?" he asked.
"Fight our way through?" said old Rane, who had been in many another tight place in his years of sea-roving, but none so close as this.
"Why, king, they be a hundred to one!"
"And if they be, what then?" said impetuous Olaf "Better fall as a viking breaking Swedish spears than die a straw-death [Footnote: So contemptuously did those fierce old sea-kings regard a peaceful life that they said of one who died quietly on his bed at home: "His was but a straw-death."] as Olaf of Sweden's bonder-man. May we not cut through these chains?"
"As soon think of cutting the solid earth, king," said the helmsman.
"So; and why not, then?" young Olaf exclaimed, struck with a brilliant idea. "Ho, Sigvat," he said, turning to his saga-man, "what was that lowland under the cliff where thou didst say the pagan Upsal king was hanged in his own golden chains by his Finnish queen?"
"'Tis called the fen of Agnefit, O king," replied the saga-man, pointing toward where it lay.
"Why, then, my Rane," asked the boy, "may we not cut our way out through that lowland fen, to the open sea and liberty?"
"'Tis Odin's own device," cried the delighted helmsman, catching at his young chief's great plan. "Ho, war-wolves all, bite ye your way through the Swedish fens! Up with the serpent banner, and farewell to Olaf the Swede!"
It seemed a narrow chance, but it was the only one. Fortune favored the boy viking. Heavy rains had flooded the lands that slope down to the Maelar Lake; in the dead of night the Swedish captives and stout Norse oarsmen were set to work, and before daybreak an open cut had been made in the lowlands beneath Agnefit, or the "Rock of King Agne," where, by the town of Sodertelje, the vikings' canal is still shown to travellers; the waters of the lake came rushing through the cut, and an open sea-strait awaited young Olaf's fleet.
"Unship the rudder; hoist the sail aloft!" commanded Bane the helmsman. "Sound war-horns all! Skoal to the Viking; skoal to the wise young Olaf!"
A strong breeze blew astern; the Norse rowers steered the rudderless ships with their long oars, and with a mighty rush, through the new canal and over all the shallows, out into the great Norrstrom, or North Stream, as the Baltic Sea was called, the fleet passed in safety while the loud war-horns blew the notes of triumph.
So the boy viking escaped from the trap of his Swedish foes, and, standing by the "grim, gaping dragon's head" that crested the prow of his warship, he bade the helmsman steer for Gotland Isle, while Sigvat, the saga-man, sang with the ring of triumph:
"Down the fiord sweep wind and rain; Our sails and tackle sway and strain; Wet to the skin We're sound within.
Our sea-steed through the foam goes prancing, While shields and spears and helms are glancing.
From fiord to sea, Our ships ride free, And down the wind with swelling sail We scud before the gathering gale."
What a breezy, rollicking old saga it is! Can't you almost catch the spray and sea-swell in its dashing measures, boys?
Now, turn to your atlases again and look for the large island of Gotland off the southeastern coast of Sweden, in the midst of the Baltic Sea. In the time of Olaf it was a thickly peopled and wealthy district, and the principal town, Wisby, at the northern end, was one of the busiest places in all Europe. To this attractive island the boy viking sailed with all his ships, looking for rich booty, but the Gotlanders met him with fair words and offered him so great a "scatt," or tribute, that he agreed not to molest them, and rested at the island, an unwelcome guest, through all the long winter.
Early in the spring he sailed eastward to the Gulf of Riga and spread fear and terror along the coast of Finland. And the old saga tells how the Finlanders "conjured up in the night, by their witchcraft, a dreadful storm and bad weather; but the king ordered all the anchors to be weighed and sail hoisted, and beat off all night to the outside of the land. So the king's luck prevailed more than the Finlander's witchcraft."
Then away "through the wild sea" to Denmark sailed the young pirate king, and here he met a brother viking, one Thorkell the Tall. The two chiefs struck up a sort of partnership; and coasting southward along the western shores of Denmark, they won a sea-fight in the Ringkiobing Fiord, among the "sand hills of Jutland." And so business continued brisk with this curiously matched pirate firm--a giant and a boy--until, under the cliffs of Kinlimma, in Friesland, hasty word came to the boy viking that the English king, Ethelred the Unready, was calling for the help of all sturdy fighters to win back his heritage and crown from young King Cnut, or Canute the Dane, whose father had seized the throne of England. Quick to respond to an appeal that promised plenty of hard knocks, and the possibility of unlimited booty, Olaf, the ever ready, hoisted his blue and crimson sails and steered his war-ships over the sea to help King Ethelred, the never ready. Up the Thames and straight for London town he rowed.
"Hail to the serpent banner! Hail to Olaf the Brave!" said King Ethelred, as the war-horns sounded a welcome; and on the low shores of the Isle of Dogs, just below the old city, the keels of the Norse war-ships grounded swiftly, and the boy viking and his followers leaped ashore. "Thou dost come in right good time with thy trusty dragon-ships, young king," said King Ethelred; "for the Danish robbers are full well entrenched in London town and in my father Edgar's castle."
And then he told Olaf how, "in the great trading place which is called Southwark," the Danes had raised "a great work and dug large ditches, and within had builded a bulwark of stone, timber, and turf, where they had stationed a large army.
"And we would fain have taken this bulwark," added the king, "and did in sooth bear down upon it with a great assault; but indeed we could make naught of it."
"And why so?" asked the young viking.
"Because," said King Ethelred, "upon the bridge betwixt the castle and Southwark have the ravaging Danes raised towers and parapets, breast high, and thence they did cast down stones and weapons upon us so that we could not prevail. And now, sea-king, what dost thou counsel? How may we avenge ourselves of our enemies and win the town?"
Impetuous as ever, and impatient of obstacles, the young viking said: "How? why, pull thou down this bridge, king, and then may ye have free river-way to thy castle."
"Break down great London Bridge, young hero?" cried the amazed king.
"How may that be? Have we a Duke Samson among us to do so great a feat?"
"Lay me thy ships alongside mine, king, close to this barricaded bridge," said the valorous boy, "and I will vow to break it down, or ye may call me caitiff and coward."
"Be it so," said Ethelred, the English king; and all the war-chiefs echoed: "Be it so!" So Olaf and his trusty Rane made ready the war-forces for the destruction of the bridge.
Old London Bridge was not what we should now call an imposing structure, but our ancestors of nine centuries back esteemed it quite a bridge. The chronicler says that it was "so broad that two wagons could pass each other upon it," and "under the bridge were piles driven into the bottom of the river."
So young Olaf and old Rane put their heads together, and decided to wreck the bridge by a bold viking stroke. And this is how it is told in the "Heimskringla," or Saga of King Olaf the Saint:
"King Olaf ordered great platforms of floating wood to be tied together with hazel bands, and for this he took down old houses; and with these, as a roof, he covered over his ships so widely that it reached over the ships' sides. Under this screen he set pillars, so high and stout that there both was room for swinging their swords, and the roofs were strong enough to withstand the stones cast down upon them."
"Now, out oars and pull for the bridge," young Olaf commanded; and the roofed-over war-ships were rowed close up to London Bridge.
And as they came near the bridge, the chronicle says: "There were cast upon them, by the Danes upon the bridge, so many stones and missile weapons, such as arrows and spears, that neither helmet nor shield could hold out against it; and the ships themselves were so greatly damaged that many retreated out of it."
But the boy viking and his Norsemen were there for a purpose, and were not to be driven back by stones or spears or arrows. Straight ahead they rowed, "quite up under the bridge."
"Out cables, all, and lay them around the piles," the young sea-king shouted; and the half-naked rowers, unshipping their oars, reached out under the roofs and passed the stout cables twice around the wooden supports of the bridge. The loose end was made fast at the stern of each vessel, and then, turning and heading down stream, King Olaf's twenty stout war-ships waited his word:
"Out oars!" he cried; "pull, war-birds! Pull all, as if ye were for Norway!"
Forward and backward swayed the stout Norse rowers; tighter and tighter pulled the cables; fast down upon the straining war-ships rained the Danish spears and stones; but the wooden piles under the great bridge were loosened by the steady tug of the cables, and soon with a sudden spurt the Norse war-ships darted down the river, while the slackened cables towed astern the captured piles of London Bridge. A great shout went up from the besiegers, and "now," says the chronicle, "as the armed troops stood thick upon the bridge, and there were likewise many heaps of stones and other weapons upon it, the bridge gave way; and a great part of the men upon it fell into the river, and all the others fled--some into the castle, some into Southwark." And before King Ethelred, "the Unready, "could pull his ships to the attack, young Olaf's fighting-men had sprung ashore, and, storming the Southwark earthworks, carried all before them, and the battle of London Bridge was won.
And the young Olaf's saga-man sang triumphantly: